Md. 'Gum Game' Used for 9 Years

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The "gum game," an exercise in which students were encouraged to share gum to illustrate the effects of peer pressure, was played in Montgomery County schools for nine years without incident before a parent's complaint halted it last month, according to directors of the Rockville clinic that created the lesson.

Leaders of the Rockville Pregnancy Center yesterday stressed the important work they were doing in Montgomery schools, teaching 90-minute lessons on abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases to high school students in health class through a program called Worth the Wait.

"We saw 6,500 kids last year. Who's going to talk to them now?" asked Gail Tierney, the group's executive director.

The clinic, a faith-based organization that offers counseling and support to pregnant women as an alternative to abortion, was expelled from the schools in January after a parent alerted school officials that a speaker had asked students to take turns chewing a piece of gum. Sharing gum poses a low risk of transmitting germs, on par with drinking from the same cup, health officials said.

Tierney said she was unaware until last weekend that the clinic had been barred from the school system, a decision conveyed to the county school board in a Jan. 12 memo from Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey.

"They threw the baby out with the bathwater," Tierney said in an interview yesterday.

School-system officials said their decision is final.

The issue, schools spokesman Brian Edwards said, was not the group's religious underpinnings -- the classroom lessons had no religious content -- but rather the wisdom of asking a group of adolescents to share gum.

"What this exercise showed is a terrible lack of judgment," Edwards said. "It is disgusting on its face. There's no question about it."

The episode has prompted a review of all groups allowed to speak in health classes, which touch on the highly politicized topics of abstinence, premarital sex and birth control. A coalition of citizen groups that favor an abstinence-only approach to sex education denounced the school board for approving new health lessons last month that introduce the topics of sexual orientation and homosexuality in grades 8 and 10.

Edwards said the decision to invite outside speakers normally falls to school officials. The Rockville group was approved on a countywide basis, which is rare, he said. He said there is no "master list" of groups approved countywide.

The curriculum officials responsible for approving the group to speak in classrooms -- first in 1998 and, most recently, last fall -- have both retired, Edwards said. The latest approval was granted by e-mail by an administrator who reviewed an eight-page outline of the lesson. The only reference to gum in the outline is the notation "Gum game. Discuss results."

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